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10 Greatest Minnesota Sports Icons Ever

Sam LanctotCorrespondent IJuly 17, 2012

10 Greatest Minnesota Sports Icons Ever

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    Being born in Minnesota, I have a special love for the state that has given so much to me. As a sporting location, it is vastly underrated just because they are a smaller market. Not every team has the luxury of playing in Chicago or New York, but Minnesota has done just fine in their own right.

    There have been some fantastic teams that have come through here. There was the Minneapolis Lakers dynasty, the Vikings squad between the '60s and '70s (known as the much more epic Purple People Eaters), the two World Series Twins teams, the North Stars and most recently the Minnesota Lynx.

    It looks as if next years Wild team could be outstanding as well with the additions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

    There have been many outstanding individuals on these Minnesota squads, and a great number of them will live on forever in fans' hearts. Some of them went beyond great though, and have become Minnesotan sporting icons. 

    And with that, here is a list of the 10 greatest icons in Minnesota sports.

Honorable Mention: Charlie Conway

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    Charlie Conway is more than just a Minnesota icon, he's an American icon.

    He helped lead the District 5 Ducks in a massive turn-around to win the championship over the heavily favored Hawks. His spirit and enthusiasm helped convince a grumpy lawyer turned pee-wee head coach to give his dream of playing hockey one final shot. 

    Two years later, he starts playing for the Junior Team USA. Soon after he was named captain of that team, but he didn't stop there. He relinquished his spot on the team when star talent Adam Banks returned from injury so Russ Tyler, master of the famous knucklepuck, could stay on the team. He became the assistant coach and helped USA capture the gold.

    Fast forward to high school, and he led the freshman team over the varsity team, effectively changing the school mascot to the Mighty Duck. How often do you hear that? And this time he did it without Gordon Bombay coaching him. He was growing up.

    Charlie Conway skated his way into people's hearts, showing dedication and skill rare in players these days. His teams' stories will continue to inspire kids and adults alike for many more years as well. All that keeps him out of the actual top ten is being fictional. 

10. Kevin Garnett

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    Garnett was the Timberwolves first real star.

    He helped bring a newer franchise into relevance, leading them to their first playoff appearance in the '96-'97 season. They wouldn't miss the playoffs again until the '04-'05 season. 

    During his tenure with the T-Wolves, Garnett was named to 10 All-Star teams, three NBA First teams, three NBA Second teams, two NBA Third teams, eight NBA All-Defensive First teams, two All-Defensive Second teams, the NBA All-Rookie Second team, won four rebounding titles, and an MVP for the 2004 season. That is quite the resume

    His legacy didn't end there either. He helped form arguably the first "big three" of the recent era with Latrell Spreewell and Sam Cassell. They brought the team within striking distance of the NBA finals, before falling just short of the outstanding Lakers squad.

    His impact on the NBA as a whole was huge as well. He was the first player drafted straight out of high school since 1975. He helped pave the way for future stars like Kobe Bryant, Amar'e Stoudemire and LeBron James. 

    He also is the only person that I can think of that was able to get Minnesota fans to cheer for a Boston team. That is just incredible.

    Garnett is a guaranteed Hall of Famer, and showed in the playoffs this year that he still has life in his old bones. His passion for the sport, and pure athletic ability to play it, will not soon be forgotten. The number 21 will always have a soft spot in Minnesotans' hearts. 

9. George Mikan

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    George Mikan was the original Minneapolis Laker. He was a tremendous talent that truly changed the sport of basketball. He was named the best basketball player of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press in 1950. And that was much deserved.

    As to how he changed the game, it was his tendency to block shots near the rim that introduced goaltending. The league expanded the lane from six feet to 12 feet and created the three second rule just to keep him away from the rim. The league even contemplated moving to 12-foot baskets to stop his dominance of the game. 

    Throughout his career, Mikan averaged 22.6 points per game. He played before rebounds were recorded, but his size alone made him a force in that department. He was forced to retire in 1954 due to the beating that he constantly received in the paint.

    Between 1948 and 1954, at the peak of his game, the Lakers won five out of six national championships. The only year that they lost came after Mikan fractured his leg. They were basketball's first dynasty. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1959, a year before the Lakers moved to Los Angeles.

    Sadly, the legend passed away in 2005. He was the first big man to dominate the game. Unfortunately, he isn't known around the state nearly as well as he deserves to be, but he is a true Minnesota legend.

8. Bert Blyleven

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    Blyleven is a Hall of Fame pitcher. He finished his career with 287 wins, 149 of those were with the Twins. He finished with 60 shutouts, 29 with the Twins, which is ninth all time. He is fifth in strikeouts with 3,701, 2,035 of those with the Twins. He was a great pitcher, and played 11 of his 22 year career with the Twins, helping them win their first world series.

    He was able to capture the hearts of Minnesota's older generation of baseball fans with his superior level of play and jovial attitude in the clubhouse. His curveball is still considered one of the best there ever was. The master of the hotfoot, he was always able to get people to laugh. He even inspired current Tigers' ace Justin Verlander to do the same to his teammates

    He kept that attitude throughout his whole career, and brought it with him to the broadcast booth. Fans are always bringing "Circle Me Bert" signs to Target Field in hopes that Bert will do just that. He keeps connected with his fan base, and the younger generation of Twins fans love him even if they don't know how good a pitcher he truly was.

    Blyleven was a rare person indeed, and brought a different kind of attitude to the clubhouse. Loved by almost everyone he meets, he has a respect for the game that makes watching the Twins far more enjoyable (even if they are losing) giving him a permanent spot as a Minnesota legend. 

7. Adrian Peterson

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    Forget about his recent arrest for the moment, which sounds like he was actually more the victim. Anybody nicknamed "Purple Jesus" obviously has his fans' adoration.

    Setting records as a rookie got his name on everyone's mind right away, first by rushing for 224 yards against the Bears on October 14th, 2007. That set the record for most yards by a rookie in a single game.

    That is until he ran for 296 yards three weeks later. That broke Jamal Lewis' record for most yards in a game ever, and he did it against a great run defense in San Diego that season. Going into that game they were only allowing 88.9 yards per game. If you have never seen the highlights from that game, or if you just haven't seen them for a while, I would highly recommend it.

    Peterson is already the franchise's second leading rusher, and is only 66 yards shy of Robert Smith for the lead. He accomplished this in only five seasons, including last year's shortened one. 

    So far throughout the off season he has shown that he should be able fully complete his rehab. I expect he will come back with a vengeance, and should only add to all those already impressive numbers. 

    The Vikings have a special guy in All-Day Adrian Peterson, and their fans know it...He has become the complete player.

    If this list is made five years from now, he should be at, or near the top.

6. Tom Kelly

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    Winning two World Series for a state that currently doesn't have any other major franchise with a championship will make you pretty respected. Take into account that Kelly brought the Twins from worst to first in 1991, and he becomes a Minnesota Legend.

    Having players like Kirby Puckett, Frank Viola, Bert Blyleven, Kent Hrbek, Dan Gladden and others certainly helps. But it takes a great manager to bring everything together. To do it twice with such a small market team is just a testament to his greatness.

    Kelly was the manager of the Twins from 1986 until 2001, when he passed it on to current manager Ron Gardenhire. He wasn't able to completely leave the game though, as he has served as Special Assistant to the General Manager ever since. He also occasionally helps broadcast the games. While to me, he isn't as entertaining as the regular announcers Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven, his knowledge and analysis of the game is amazing to witness.

    Kelly helped create what Twins baseball is today, and his World Series victories are still some of the most entertaining ones in the history of baseball. He took a rag tag small team that won 77 games in 1985 to a championship in just two years. That is pretty amazing, and I will never stop respecting his greatness.

5. Joe Mauer

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    Minnesota's golden boy has to be on this list. He was born a stone's throw from where he currently plays, which is every budding baseball player's dream. He was a multi-sport athlete in high school, being named all state in baseball, football and basketball multiple times. He is truly just a tremendous athlete.

    The Twins used the number one overall pick on him in 2001. He debuted in 2004, and has since been amazing. He is already considered one of the best (if not the best) hitting catchers to play the game. He has won three batting titles so far, and is competing for his fourth this season.

    He was the American League MVP back in 2009, when he batted .365, hit 28 home runs, and drove in 96 runs, which are all career highs. He is having another outstanding year coming back from an injury in 2011. 

    Mauer is a superstar in Minnesota. I remember reading somewhere that back when he and Justin Morneau were roommates, Morneau had to do all the grocery shopping. Mauer would be recognized by almost everyone, and would take the time to actually talk with everyone who approached him. I can't verify if its true or not, but it certainly is believable. 

    Being the definition of Minnesota nice, he responds to all of his fan mail with the help of his mother. I have even had a few friends write to him, and they all received personalized typed responses to their letters, with Mauer's signature at the bottom. He will forever be in fans hearts, and his popularity should only grow.

4. Harmon Killebrew

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    The "Killer" was the best power hitter the Twins have ever had.

    He belted 573 career home runs during his 22 years in the league. During his tenure, he finished in the top 15 for MVP 10 different times, and actually won it in 1969 when he had 49 home runs and 140 RBIs, both career highs. His .256 career average is lower than you would expect out of an elite hitter, but it was his power that created his legacy. 

    No other Twin has hit for 40 home runs in a season, but Harmon managed it eight separate times. His soft spoken personality was the polar opposite of what he brought to the plate. But it was that personality that sticks with the people who knew him as a person far more.

    After Killebrew passed away in May of last year, Twins president Dave St. Peter gave Harmon the highest praise I have ever heard about a player, and he didn't even mention his talent (via ESPN): "Killebrew's legacy will be the class, dignity and humility he demonstrated each and every day as a Hall of Fame-quality husband, father, friend, teammate and man."

    I wish I had been fortunate enough to have seen him play, but I will happily suffice with knowing that a man of his caliber and integrity is part of the Twins' legacy.

    Although his first seven seasons were before the Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins, he had really only begun to establish himself. After the move he just kept playing his game and fans flocked to see how far he could hit the ball day after day. Killebrew never won a World Series, but it was his bat that helped establish the Twins as a legitimate team early on, and it's his same attitude that continues to define the Twins of the modern era. 

3. Cris Carter

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    Carter is statistically the second best receiver in NFL history behind Jerry Rice. He finished his career with 1101 catches, 13,899 yards, and 130 touchdowns. And he did almost all of that wearing Vikings purple. 

    He helped mentor Randy Moss into the player he became on the field. With Moss arguably among the best ever as well, those two formed one of the most dangerous duos in receiver history.

    He started out drafted by Philadelphia in the fourth round of the supplemental draft. He ended up being cut in 1990 due to his attitude and drug problems. He later stated it was being cut that helped him turn his life around. The Vikings decided to take the risk and claim him, and did that ever work out. He was able to figure out how to mature both on and off the field while being a Viking.

    This is the basis of all the comparisons between Carter and newcomer Jerome Simpson. Both had issues before they arrived and both came at a low cost to the Vikings. Now all Simpson needs to do is average about 84 catches, 1,032 yards and nine touchdowns every season he is a Viking to complete the comparison...quite the tall order.

    All of that is why Carter is so special. He is still an NFL analyst providing NFL fans with information and entertainment outside of game day. He, along with Larry Fitzgerald, helped pave the way for Sidney Rice's breakout 2009 campaign. 

    He is a Minnesota star and has a close place in all Vikings fans hearts. He was a tremendous talent, has a continuing legacy and became an upstanding individual once he became a Viking. The fact that he remains out of the Hall of Fame is a crying shame, as he belongs with all of the greats.

2. Kirby Puckett

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    Puckett is the ideal Twin. He could make anybody happy with his infectious smile, but he didn't stop there. His tremendous play for ten seasons landed him not only in fans hearts, but in the Hall of Fame. His 10 All-Star appearances, six gold gloves, and six silver sluggers help to testify to his greatness.

    Puckett was one of the players on both of the Twins' World Series rosters, and as I mentioned was able to contribute with both his glove and bat. He even hit the game winning home run in game six of the '91 World Series; an extra innings walk off blast that helped make that World Series one of the most memorable of all time. 

    During his career, Puckett hit 207 home runs and batted .318.  Those numbers could have been better, but his career was sadly and dramatically cut short when he was hit in the face with a fastball during the '95 season. He never played again, having lost some vision after the incident.

    In 2006, at the age of 45, Kirby had a massive stroke, and died a day later. His fiancee was by his side through it all, as were many of his teammates, who fortunately were able to get to him in time. Four years later, the Twins unveiled a statue of Puckett at Target Field, depicting his pose from the picture above. 

    He was always the life of the clubhouse, and was a great player throughout his whole career. It's hard to define an icon better than Kirby did.

    Not many people are able to upstage Kirby, especially in his own state. Who could be number one?

1. Herb Brooks

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    Being the state of hockey, it is only fitting that we have the coach of the greatest hockey story ever told. Herb Brooks was the coach of the University of Minnesota Men's Hockey Team, and led them to three national titles in 1974, 1976, and 1979. His success gave him the opportunity to coach the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team.

    For those of you who don't know (Honestly, at least go see the movie if you don't) Brooks hand-picked his team. He was criticized early for not taking some of the top talent, but started to silence his critics when the games started. His squad went in as big underdogs, but continued to win game after game onto the semi-finals. The Russian squad was far and away the best in the world, but his team was able to pull off the greatest upset of all time. (Seriously, try not to get goosebumps. Al Michaels is amazing). They went on to win it all after beating Finland for the gold. 

    Brooks went on to coach several NHL teams, as well as two more Olympic teams, but continued to live in Minnesota. Sadly he died in 2003 at the age of  66 in a car crash. Nothing will ever diminish his legacy or his miracle that he performed in 1980. He is a true hockey legend, and earned the title of Minnesota's greatest sports icon ever.

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